Aboard Sri Lanka's tsunami train, an anguished hope of reunion

By Dinuka Liyanawatta
People hang onto the Sri Lankan train Samudra Devi in Pereliya December 26, 2014. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

By Dinuka Liyanawatta

PERELIYA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - Ten years after a towering wave hurled the Sri Lankan train Samudra Devi off its tracks and killed more than 1,000 people, passenger Shanthi Gallage still carries a faint hope of finding her missing husband and daughter.

Samudra Devi, or "Ocean Queen", made a special journey on Friday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed an estimated 40,000 people in Sri Lanka when it pounded its sand-fringed coastline.

The original locomotive and five of its carriages were restored in 2008 and the train headed south from Colombo on Friday at the exact same time as a decade ago, with relatives of victims and a handful of survivors on board.

On Dec. 26, 2004, the packed train was derailed by the force of war rushing in from the sea.

Many of the 1,270 who perished had jumped on the roof of the train or sought protection behind the carriages in a bid to avoid being swept away by the powerful swell.

But the rush of water picked up the carriages and crushed many of those who had sought shelter behind it against trees and buildings. Passengers trapped inside were drowned.


Among the passengers back then, and again on Friday, was 55-year-old receptionist Gallage, for whom the memories are vivid, and closure is elusive.

"I think my husband is dead but I still believe my younger daughter is still living," said Gallage, who survived with her eldest daughter.

"I came to see if she also had come here. I think she would have suffered memory loss due to the tragedy."

The train stopped at the same place in Pereliya, two hours from Colombo, where it was forced off the rail line that hugs the jungle-clad coast.

Wanigaratne Karunatilake, the 58-year train guard, said lives could have saved but those on board were unaware of what was happening and stayed inside the train.

"I just got out of the train through a window and got on to the roof and tried to save as many as I could," he said.

"Then the train started to float on the water."

(Writing By Shihar Aneez; Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)